Taco Bell boosts benefits as labor shortage hampers rebound efforts

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The restaurant industry’s labor shortage has fast-food chains like Taco Bell sweetening the pot in hopes of staffing up.

The Yum Brands-owned chain, known for its Mexican-inspired menu, announced plans Tuesday to hire 5,000 employees on April 21 at some 2,000 Taco Bells across the country. And it will be boosting benefits for its managers amid a labor shortage that continues to plague the services industry despite sky-high unemployment rates.

“It is no secret that the labor market is tight,” said Kelly McCulloch, Taco Bell’s chief people officer, in a statement Tuesday announcing the new perks.

General managers at the chain’s company-owned eateries will now get four weeks of annual vacation, eight weeks of paid maternity leave and four weeks of new parent and guardian “baby bonding,” the company said.

Taco Bell isn’t alone. Darden, which owns Olive Garden and Yard House, said on March 25 that it’s raising its minimum starting wage to $10 an hour starting immediately. The wage will be boosted further to $11 per hour in January 2022 and to $12 in January 2023.

Starbucks in December boosted its pay by 10 percent and said it will increase hourly wages to $15 an hour over the next two to three years.  

“Finding enough people to work is easily the No. 1 concern for restaurant operators today,” restaurant analyst Mark Kalinlowski told The Post. “I’ve heard of restaurants not being able to open for a day because they don’t have enough workers or restaurants that cut their hours of operation because they don’t have enough staff throughout the day — and these are all large chains.”

The labor problem started before the pandemic but worsened last year — despite record joblessness — as many services workers chose to collect unemployment rather than risk bringing the deadly coronavirus home to their families.

“In Ohio you can make $452 a week in unemployment,” Carl Howard, chief executive of the 200-unit Fazoli’s chain told Restaurant Business. “The federal government is going to top that with $300. That’s $752. If I pay $15 an hour, that’s $600. They’re making $18.55 to stay home.  “I’ve got to pay $18.55 if I’m going to attract workers. That doesn’t work in our model or anyone else’s model.”

Although more people are now somewhat protected from the virus due to vaccinations, demand for positions for waiters, cooks, bartenders and hostesses still hasn’t caught up with supply in part because so many more such jobs have opened up.

In March, as the weather warmed and more states loosened their indoor dining restrictions, the US restaurant industry was short about 1.2 million employees compared to the same month in 2020, according to US Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

During past economic downturns, restaurant jobs provided a much-needed lifeline for unemployed workers. But this time is different, thanks to a combination of the coronavirus and boosted unemployment benefits, experts said.

“During other economic downturns restaurants have generally benefitted, finding workers who’d been laid off in other industries,” Aaron Allan & Associates analyst, RJ Hottovy told The Post. “But the opposite situation is happening now with the restaurants being the employers unable to find workers.”

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